River and Water Conservation Organizations’ Role in Disaster Management

Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and severe. Between 1995 and 2015, the United Nations estimated that a staggering 4.1 billion people worldwide were injured, left homeless, or required emergency assistance as a result of weather-related disasters 1. The majority of victims were impacted by flooding, which claims approximately 200 lives each year in the United States 2. The need for community-based disaster preparedness and emergency response has never been greater.

Governments typically take the lead in disaster management, which is often conceptualized as a continuous cycle of hazard mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery.

River and water conservation organizations are already collaborating across sectors to build resilient social and ecological systems that mitigate the impact of natural disasters before they occur. In many communities, there is still more we can do to prepare for disasters and build resiliency into our ecosystems to help protect people from danger. We can also build resiliency into the social systems that we need to recover more quickly. Both investments are crucial to building a more sustainable future for people and nature.

Local river and watershed conservation organizations have an important role in the disaster management cycle due to their networks of volunteers, knowledge of – and access to – on the ground conditions, and high level of expertise in water resource management, among other assets.

If your organization hasn’t done so already, building your own disaster management plan will allow you to identify who you will work with to assure your watershed is restored or even improved after disaster strikes, to help engage your community in this rebuilding process, and to mitigate against the impacts of future disasters.

The first and perhaps most crucial step in disaster management is mitigation and capacity building. River and watershed organizations can play a major role in helping their communities prepare for disasters by first identifying the agencies involved in disaster management within their watershed. Increasing collaboration across sectors to build resilient systems that support both people and nature can help mitigate the impact of disasters. Forging relationships with relief agencies, government emergency managers, local media outlets, and other conservation groups to build in resiliency before disaster strikes will facilitate greater collaboration across sectors.

Next, water organizations can collaborate with key stakeholders to identify, review, and prioritize all potential hazards, from levee breaches and flash flooding to algae blooms and drinking water contamination. Continuously reviewing known and emerging hazards with traditional emergency managers will ensure that communities are better prepared to respond to any type of disaster. This will also expose outdated paradigms and gaps in preparedness which traditional emergency mangers may not have considered.

The Gentilly Resilience District is featured in the July 2016 issue of River Voices. Photo source: City of New Orleans

For example, protecting or restoring wetlands, grasslands, flood plains, and other areas designed to absorb rain water can lesson the severity of urban flooding during hurricanes and other major rain events.

Water groups can begin to outline an organization-wide emergency response and communication plan once hazards and gaps in preparedness have been identified. Any disaster response plan should capitalize on an organization’s existing strengths, such as the ability to mobilize and organize volunteers or provide hydrologic engineering services. A disaster response plan should also include a communication plan which utilizes existing listservs, media contacts and social media platforms to provide accurate and timely information to the community. This will allow conservation organizations to frame the crisis in a way that addresses the underlying cause of the disaster and focus attention on longer term solutions. Finally, a disaster response strategic plan should allow for organizational flexibility during times of crisis so that staff can shift roles as needed to respond to quickly evolving community needs.

Local river and watershed conservation organizations have a key role to plan in disaster preparedness and recovery. Identifying stakeholders, addressing gaps in preparedness, and drafting emergency response and communications plans will elevate awareness of disaster planning among the water conservation community while encouraging more agile and inclusive disaster planning.


  1. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. (2015). 20-year review shows 90% of disasters are weather-related; US, China, India, Philippines, and Indonesia record the most. Retrieved from: http://www.unisdr.org/archive/46793
  2. Flood Safety. (2017). Flood Damage and Fatality Statistics. Retrieved from http://floodsafety.com/national/life/statistics.htm
  3. A2Z Disaster Management and Innovative Response Education Pvt. Ltd. (2017). Disaster Management. Retrieved from: http://enziq.com/dev-server/Admire/disasterManagement.html


We have compiled the following resources to provide guidance and share lessons related to community-based disaster management. Over time, we will update the list of resources and lessons related to this work.